A look at what (possibly, may be, could be) the Movies to Watch at this year's decidedly political Sundance Film Festival

By Adam B. Vary
Updated January 21, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST
Robert Redford
Credit: Robert Redford: Evan Agostini/Getty Images

Maybe it was Paris Hilton’s party hopping, maybe it was the endless mounds of swag suites, maybe it was the hullabaloo surrounding the amount Fox Searchlight paid to buy Little Miss Sunshine. Whatever the reason, something about what’s happened to the Sundance Film Festival over the past few years has clearly stuck in Robert Redford’s craw. The venerable actor and president/founder of the Sundance Institute, emerged at the opening day press conference in Park City, Utah, bound and determined to refocus the festival to its former glory as a venerated celebration of independent cinema.

Looking typically rustic in a black turtleneck, jeans and rough work boots, Redford pledged that this year’s Sundance would be much less interested in ”fashion and ambush marketing” than in years past. (Hence the buttons circulating around that read, simply, ”FOCUS ON FILM.”) To that end, Redford lauded the fest’s decision to open with Chicago 10, an unconventional documentary about the infamous trial of a group of protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. (Animated sequences in the film feature the voices of Hank Azaria, Nick Nolte, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, and Jeffrey Wright.) Plus, for the first time ever, Sundance is making virtually all of the short films screening at the fest available to view on its own Web site and for download from the iTunes Music Store. ”We program it like a film festival and not a market,” Redford said sternly. ”Buyers are continuously asking, ‘What’s this? What’s that? Is there going to be a breakout hit?’, which I don’t really care about.”

It wouldn’t be Sundance, however, without at least a little buzz-making on what may hit big in the thin Rocky Mountain air, so here are five movies to watch for in the coming nine days:

Hounddog: This sure-to-get-attention Southern gothic drama features Dakota Fanning as an Elvis-loving southern girl living with her violent father (David Morse) and strict grandmother (Piper Laurie) while guarding what the Sundance brochure calls ”a painful history.” What could it be? Hint: Festivalgoers are already referring to Hounddog as ”the Dakota Fanning rape movie.”

Black Snake Moan: Writer-director Craig Brewer’s last film at Sundance, 2005’s Hustle & Flow, ignited a bidding frenzy practically the moment the lights came up after its first screening. But his follow up — about a blues musician (Samuel L. Jackson) who decides to reform a troubled nymphomaniac (Christina Ricci) with some, well, unorthodox methods — was bankrolled from the get-go by Paramount Vantage and already has a release date: February 23. But it also stars Justin Timberlake as Ricci’s boyfriend, so odds are it’ll still cause a commotion.

Grace Is Gone: John Cusack plays a father faced with the agonizing task of telling his two young daughters that their mother, Grace, was killed in Iraq — so he doesn’t, or at least not right away. By all accounts, this uniquely political film at a particularly political festival could also prove to be a comeback of sorts for the where’s-he-been Cusack.

The Nines: The directorial debut for screenwriter John August (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Big Fish, Go) defies easy description, but here goes: A triptych of three separate, yet interconnected stories — an actor under house arrest, the making of a TV sitcom, and a family lost in the deep woods — that all star Ryan Reynolds, Hope Davis, and Melissa McCarthy (Gilmore Girls). Phew!

The Ten: That’s right — yet another numerically titled collection of interrelated short films! This one retells the Ten Commandments via the brain of Stella star and Wet Hot American Summer director David Wain. Quirky-snarky sacrilege, an impressive indie-flick cast — Winona Ryder, Paul Rudd, Jessica Alba, Justin Theroux, Rob Corddry, Adam Brody, Liev Schreiber, Oliver Platt, and Gretchen Mol — and the promise of a plot involving Ryder as a woman romantically infatuated with a ventriloquist dummy, all hopefully add up to a welcome burst of silliness in what otherwise is shaping up to be a quite dark and serious Sundance.

Reporting by Neil Drumming